After 24 years of medication, I finally beat cholesterol this past week. Ironically, I just learned that the more dangerous threat to my health is lack of good relationships, not high cholesterol.
Men aren’t known for their close relationships with the doctor. Generally speaking, we don’t take good care of ourselves. As a 40-year-old man, I felt kicked in the stomach to hear that I needed to be on cholesterol medication. I felt too young for such nonsense. But I complied. As studies have repeatedly denounced the safety or even the benefit of such medications, I have wanted a better solution. Diet and exercise changed the course of my life with all my numbers in the normal range for the first time in 25 years.
But, did I focus on the wrong thing? In the heart of the Great Depression, Harvard University began one of the longest studies of life: the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Since Harvard was still a male-only institution, it turned out to be a longitudinal study of men. It’s been going for over 80 years and still has several of the original subjects involved in the study. They are now in their 90’s.
This is the quote that stopped me dead in my tracks: “People’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.” In a TED talk on the subject, Robert Waldinger stated emphatically that the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.
For dads, this study encourages good relationships with your child’s mother as an indicator of how long you will live. Most of us realize that making momma unhappy can disturb quality of life more than anything. Now it seems that long life is dependent on relationships like these.
Friendships and community relationships are also important. Dads can’t afford to neglect the relationships they brought into parenthood or their involvement in the community. Being a coach or participating in a social service organization may be just as important to help you live longer.
What causes the longer lifespan, exactly? Good relationships protect us from life’s discontents, for one thing. Shared disappointments lessen the grief and pain. Our mental and physical decline is actually slowed by keeping good ties with other people throughout life. That childhood friend of yours might help you make it through your 80’s.
How do we maintain warm relationships with our spouse and friends? I would suggest keeping a priority on spending time with these important people—one on one—and emphasizing mutually beneficial things like talking and listening, doing things together that you both enjoy and sending notes and gifts to feed the relationship when you are apart.
A little bickering is one thing but repairing conflict is essential to keeping relationships intact. Swallowing some pride and seeing things from the other person’s point of view could lengthen your life. Conflict leads to loneliness and loneliness kills as surely as alcohol or cigarettes, according to Waldinger.
Since fatherhood often refocuses a man’s attention on quality of life for the sake of his offspring, changing his life to focus on relationships may be the most important thing a man can do.